Did you know?... Australia is a clever country

Australia for its small population has produced a remarkable number of Nobel Prize winners. When can stand proud because, relative to our population, we are in the top five countries which have received a Nobel Prize in any category. The majority of Australia’s Nobel Prizes have been in Science and Medicine.

  • Lawrence Bragg & William Bragg, physicists received the Nobel Prize in 1915 for their work in x-ray crystallography. They remain the only father and son team to be awarded the prize , and Lawrence who was aged 25 at the time is still the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for science.
  • Howard Florey received the prize in 1945 along with Alexander Fleming and Ernest Chain (both British) for their work on the medicinal properties of penicillin. It was Florey who later turned penicillin into the practical drug which was to save millions of lives. (See also Who was the Inventor?)
  • Macfarlane Burnett received the prize in 1960 for his work on immunology.
  • John Eccles received the prize in 1963 along with Andrew Huxley and Alan Hodgkin (both British) for their work on nerve cells.
  • Bernard Katz - received the prize in 1970 for Physiology and Medicine.
  • Patrick White received the prize in 1973 for literature.
  • John Cornforth received the prize in 1975  for chemistry.
  • John Harsanyi (Hungarian & Australian) who received the prize in 1994 for his mathematical contributions to economics.
  • Peter Doherty and Rolf M. Zinkernagel (Swiss & Australian) who received the prize in 1996 for their work in immunology.
  • Barry Marshall and Robin Warren received the prize in 2005 for their discovery in 1982 of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium which causes stomach ulcers and gastritis.
  • Dr. Mark Howden received the prize in 2007 alongwith Al Gore and other members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Are they Australian?

We have used the same criteria as for our significant Australians in labelling people as 'Australians'.

World class scientists often have to live and work where the research is being conducted. Thus, while Sir John Cornforth was born and educated in Australia (graduating from Sydney University despite his deafness) he did most of his work in Britain. William & Lawrence Bragg did much of their work in Britain, even though Lawrence was born in Adelaide and both worked there for some time. Patrick White was sometimes scathing of his home country, whereas Sir MacFarlane Burnett did most of his significant work in Australia. Bernard Katz had been born in Germany but had long been a naturalised Australian when he won the prize having served with the Australian air force in WWII.

We have made two inclusions which some may see as stretching our definition of 'Australian' too far. We have decided to include John Harsanyi because, even though he did his initial study in Hungary and his later work in USA, it was his postgraduate studies at Sydney University that laid the groundwork for his change of direction from sociology to economics in which he was to win his Nobel Prize. We have also included Rolf Zinkernagel since he enrolled at the Australian National University at the age of 28 and received his PhD from that institution in 1975 and he did collaborate in his Nobel Prize winning research with Peter Doherty. We suggest you read the brief autobiographies they wrote at the time of the award and decide for yourself whether you would include them on a list of Australian Nobel Prize winners. (For the autobiographies see John Harsanyi and Rolf M. Zinkernagel)

We have decided not to include on our list Aleksandr Prokhorov who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for Physics. Although he was Australian born, he left Australia at the age of seven and did all his major work in Russia. We therefore would describe him as Australian-born rather than Australian. Similarly Robert Robinson who had been Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Sydney during the 1910s and received a Nobel Prize in 1947, was born in the UK and did most of his work there so we have not included him on our list.

Regardless of where they were born, where they worked, or what main nationality they would claim, they are all remarkable people and worthy of respect.

Further information
Currently, Sir John Cornforth, Peter Doherty, Rolf Zinkernagel, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren are Australia's only living Nobel Prize Winners.

A number of Australians have shared in Nobel Prizes that have been presented to groups or organisations. For instance in 2007 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on on Climate Change (IPCC). Thus Professor Neville Nichols as a lead author together with a number of other Australian scientists involved in the work shared in the Nobel Prize.

An Australian 'mentioned in despatches' at the Nobel Prize ceremonies was FM Alexander who invented 'The Alexander Technique'. When accepting his Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1973, Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen said that Alexander's "story of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice".

In addition we should mention another Nobel Prize Winner living in Australia - John M, Coetzee. Coetzee was born in South Africa and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. He had lived in the UK and USA before choosing to settle in Adelaide in 2002. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.

Australian born Dr Elizabeth Blackburn is regarded by many in the science community as a strong candidate for a future Nobel Prize for her work in genetics.

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